- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

First lady Laura Bush left on a trip to Afghanistan yesterday, a journey she said she has wanted to make for years, to visit U.S. troops and Afghan women who have been allowed to return to school and to vote for the first time in the country’s recent history.

“I have been so looking forward to going to Afghanistan,” Mrs. Bush told reporters before she boarded a plane yesterday morning at Andrews Air Force Base. “When I really realized the plight of the women under the Taliban, I also found that American women really stand in solidarity with the women in Afghanistan.”

After President Bush made a visit to Iraq for Thanksgiving in 2003, Mrs. Bush expressed a desire to visit Afghanistan, but the trip was delayed because of security concerns.

“I was hoping to go sometime last year and just never had the chance because of the campaign and other things,” she said.

The trip was kept secret until Monday night, when a small pool of reporters — including staffers from ABC News, Cox Newspapers, and the Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg wire services — were given 12 hours’ notice to prepare to accompany Mrs. Bush.

The first lady left the base at 10:30 a.m. yesterday and was expected to spend five hours in Kabul today. She will meet with President Hamid Karzai, have dinner with U.S. troops serving in the war zone and meet with women who have begun education programs that were banned under the Islamic rule of the Taliban.

Mrs. Bush said she has been inspired by U.S. women’s interest in the plight of Afghan women and wanted to relay that support in person.

“It’s very hard to imagine the idea of denying girls an education, of never allowing girls to go to school, and I’m sure men as well were struck with the horror of it, but I think particularly American women were,” Mrs. Bush said, adding that she is confident that American values can be incorporated into Afghanistan’s conservative, religious society.

“I read the articles every once in a while about some families in some little towns with warlords still who don’t want girls to go to school. I think it is really fairly isolated,” she said.

Mrs. Bush, a former school librarian, said she remembers writing a school report on Afghanistan when she was in the sixth grade. From an encyclopedia, she said, she learned that Afghanistan was a “very exotic, a very exotic place that you would love to visit.” But, she said, that country was ruined by the Taliban.

“I hope it looks again as it did as a beautiful garden country that it was,” Mrs. Bush said. “I want it to look like Afghanistan. I want it to be Afghanistan.

“My dream would be that it will be an educated country where all these little girls that started school two years ago on March 23 will have graduated from high school and be going to Kabul University or some of these other universities there,” she said.

Mrs. Bush will be announcing grants of $17.7 million to the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and $3.5 million to the American International School of Kabul.

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